This article reviews the experiences of an unnamed Marconi Wireless operator, starting around 1900.
Chamber's Journal, December 23, 1911, pages 60-62:
L I F E A S A W I R E L E S S T E L E G R A P H I S T.
TEN or twelve years ago the only wireless telegraphists were a few scientific experts and their assistants; but when wireless telegraphy came into practical operation for commercial and other purposes the wireless telegraphist, as a natural result, came into existence, and many like myself who were preparing for service in some of the big cable companies elected to try their fortunes as wireless telegraphists, for whom a very considerable demand had arisen.
My first experience as a wireless operator was on board a liner. I had gone through a short period of training in wireless work, which, together with my previously acquired knowledge of ordinary telegraphy, was supposed to render me thoroughly competent for any duties; but this, I fear, was only a supposition. A great deal of practical experience in wireless work is required before one becomes a really efficient operator. The fact is, a wireless telegraphist is always to a certain extent, even now, working in the dark. He is in control of an apparatus that behaves from time to time in the most eccentric fashion, sadly puzzling even to scientific experts, and simply bewildering to an operator. In cable-work, when anything goes wrong with a receiver or transmitter, an operator who has been properly trained in his duties can readily enough ascertain the cause of the trouble and put it right. In working a wireless apparatus he has often simply to guess at the cause when trouble arises; sometimes he guesses right, and sometimes he does not. I remember the first night I was on duty the captain of the liner wanted to signal another vessel which he knew ought then to be within about fifty miles of him, bound for Southampton. In accordance with his orders, I signalled her, but our receiver did not record a reply, which showed that (presuming that the liner was where we expected her to be, which she very likely was) either her apparatus or ours was faulty. I could not, however, be certain that ours was all right without testing it in various ways; and whilst I was so employed a message suddenly begin to come through. The captain was standing beside me in the operating cabin at the moment, and exclaimed, 'There they are! We have got them at last.' But we hadn't. I had got our receiver into 'tune' with the transmitter on board a steamer some miles away, which was carrying an experimental wireless apparatus, and was searching the seas for some ship to talk to; and she kept talking to us for about half-an-hour. Our receiver worked beautifully, and the tape kept running from the Morse printer without a hitch. 'We are the Minerva,' ran the message in Morse dots and dashes on the tape. 'We are operating experimentally. Please reply.' Then came a full stop, and then the message was repeated again. I acknowledged it, and told them who we were; but still the same message came running off the tape. After it had come through a dozen times in a few minutes, the captain of the liner got into a furious rage. 'Tell them,' he exclaimed, 'to chuck that machine overboard. Ask who let them loose. Tell them to work for Colney Hatch.' 'I can't tell them anything,' I replied. 'I think their receiver must be out of order, though they don't seem to know it; but it must be, or they would have received our reply and acknowledged it. Of course our transmitter may not be in order, but it seems to be all right.' The captain shrugged his shoulders, muttered something about 'those useless newfangled notions' and went away; and for an hour that irritating message kept coming through from the Minerva until we had got beyond her operating radius, which was about fifty miles. One night, a little while after, we expected to be called up by a liner passing some thirty miles east of us. I was on duty in the operating-cabin just about the time we expected to be called, and the captain came in to ask if I had been signalled yet. Almost at the same moment the tape began to come very slowly in short jerks from the printer. 'There you are,' said the captain, 'unless we have been picked up again by some experimenting pirate; that ought to the liner. Get your reply through quickly, for I believe she has one of our directors on board.' I looked at the dots and dashes which came out on the tape, but could not make head or tail of them. 'I don't think it is the liner,' I answered; 'it seems to me a queer sort of message--nothing but a disconnected jumble of signs and letters. However, I will answer them, anyway.'
I depressed the telegraphic key of the transmitter, a big blue spark flashed out between the polished brass knobs on the coil, and our acknowledgment of the signals went out into space in ether waves which should have instantaneously operated any wireless receiver within a hundred miles of us and in tune with our transmitter. Then I proceeded to ask, 'What ship is that? We are the ------ for New York.' But no response came through our receiver--nothing but a mysterious jumble of letters that came out on the tape in jerks. 'It is just possible,' I remarked to the captain, 'that we have picked up a message in code passing between two men-of-war.' 'Or perhaps there is a monkey on a raft somewhere near us,' replied the captain, who got very irritable at this latest freak of our wireless apparatus, 'and he is sending us messages with a biscuit-tin.' By the time we reached New York our captain had lost any faith he had in the practical use of wireless telegraphy, and not, I must say, without some reason, for on that voyage we actually failed to establish proper communication with no less than five ships out of nine which we had endeavoured to signal or which had tried to signal us.
But, of course, the wireless service has been vastly improved since then. However, to return to the mysterious message just mentioned, I found out, after a most elaborate examination of our apparatus, that a big beetle was crawling about the relay of the receiver, and the dots and dashes were nothing more than a record of his wanderings in a place where he had no right to be. The liner, by the way, never succeeded in getting through to us, though she made several attempts to do so.
During the past few years, as we have said, the whole system of wireless telegraphy has been immensely improved. On many liners, from the start to the end of the voyage, a staff of operators is continuously at work receiving messages from and despatching messages to the nearest shore-station. I had a short time ago an experience on a liner which shows how very useful the wireless system may be on occasions. We had left Liverpool about an hour when an elderly gentleman came up from the cabin and asked me if I could get a message through at once to his office in London. Wireless messages from ships are sent first to the shore-station, where they are wired in the ordinary way to the persons to whom they are addressed. Sometimes, when several ships are 'talking' to the shore-station, some delay may arise in getting a message through, but in this instance I was able to send it at once. The message was to the gentleman's junior partner in the City, and was in code, so I did not understand it; but later the gentleman informed me that he had obtained from one of the passengers a very important piece of information concerning a certain firm in the City, and it was of such a nature as to make him very anxious to prevent his partner from engaging in a big transaction with the firm in question which he contemplated doing. By aid of a wireless message the senior partner, though miles out at sea, was able to warn his junior of the danger of doing business with this firm, and thus saved both himself and his partner from losing a great deal of money. On another occasion a well-known English theatrical manager who was going to America with a view to purchasing the rights in certain plays got into communication by wireless message with the playwright when we were three hundred miles from New York, and long ere we entered the harbour had secured the rights in the plays he required.
Often passengers who run short of ready cash send wireless messages to their bankers in New York or London for a remittance. The money is advised to the purser, who advances it to the passenger. But this system is not always advantageous to a passenger. I know of one gentleman who lost all his ready-money at cards in two days after we left New York. As soon as he could he got a wireless advice from his bankers for one hundred and fifty pounds, and ere the voyage was over had only a five-pound note left. He confessed to me before leaving the ship that he would never send a wireless message for money again.
The work of a wireless-operator at a shore-station is much more monotonous than on a ship, especially when he is dumped down in some lonely spot, perhaps miles from even a little village. As a rule three operators are put in charge of a shore-station, which is, of course, connected by wire with the inland telegraphic system, and their duty chiefly consists in forwarding wireless messages received from ships and transmitting inland messages to ships. One operator must always be on duty, and under the system now generally adopted the incoming messages from ships are conveyed to him by the tappings of the Morse sounder on the receiver, which he can only hear through a telephonic headpiece connected with the receiver, and he has, therefore, continually to wear this headgear when on duty. Though it is, after a little practice, quite easy to read messages by the tappings of the Morse sounder, it is at first extremely difficult to distinguish these sounds from the queer noises that are continually coming through the receiver of a wireless apparatus, and the result is that an inexperienced operator will often reply to signals that are really nothing more than noises created by atmospheric influences on the wireless apparatus.
When I was on duty at a shore-station in the south of Ireland a little while ago I replied to an imaginary signal of this sort, and so managed to call up a man-of-war which was at the moment trying to signal another ship. After I had explained who I was, I received a shower of abuse for interfering with the signalling of His Majesty's ships, and was earnestly requested by an apparently very irritable naval officer not to play with a machine I did not understand the use of. A few days later I neglected to answer promptly a genuine signal, thinking it might be an imaginary one, and once more received a copious shower of abuse from an operator on board the man-of-war for my slowness in answering a call. However, an operator after a little practice can readily distinguish the sound of a real call from that of an imaginary one.
One of the strangest happenings I ever heard of in connection with wireless telegraphy occurred on board a man-of-war a year or so ago. I was well acquainted with the operator who was then in charge of the wireless apparatus on board the vessel, and it was he who told me the story. He was on duty at midnight when an officer came into the operating-cabin and began to ask him some questions about the apparatus, which during the day had been working most successfully, messages having been transmitted and received over a radius of one hundred and fifty miles without the least hitch. While the officer was talking he put on the telephone-gear connected with the receiver, and directly he did so he exclaimed, 'By Jove! we are receiving a message. I can hear tappings distinctly, though they are faint.' He took off the headpiece and handed it to the operator, who, however, could not hear a sound when he put it on. Then the officer put it over his ears again, and once more declared he could hear the Morse tappings, though they were still very faint. He then imitated the sound of the tappings he heard by rapping his knuckles upon the table on which the receiver stood. The operator listened attentively, and presently said, 'Well, the meaning of the message you are tapping out is, "Stranded, in high-water. All in." ' The officer at once exclaimed, 'Why, that is very like part of our code, though it is not quite correct.' The tappings, however, then ceased, and as nothing more came through, the officer left the cabin after a little while, agreeing with the operator that the tappings he had heard were probably imaginary. The next day, however, a message came through from another man-of-war to the effect that she had been trying to signal the M----- during the night at a distance of two hundred miles, but apparently could not get into communication with her. The M----- was working within a radius of one hundred and fifty miles, and so failed to record the message; but it was evident enough that this was the message which the officer had heard, and which had been quite inaudible to the operator, proving that the former must have possessed an almost miraculously fine power of hearing; and this turned out actually to be the case, though the officer up till that time had no idea that his hearing-powers were greater than the normal.